19/03/2015 06:11 GMT | Updated 18/05/2015 06:59 BST

Apprenticeships: What's in a Name?

We seem to be in the middle of an apprenticeships 'arms race' between the three main political parties. They're all trying to outdo each other by pledging to create even more apprenticeships post-election.

Those promises are all well and good - and it's great to see so much enthusiasm around apprenticeships.

But instead of focusing on increasing the numbers, we need to start by understanding what qualifies as an apprenticeship.

What is an apprenticeship?

Apprenticeships generally last from one to four years, and are a mix of paid work experience and classroom time.

They're available in a variety of areas, from social care to social media, and lead to a recognised qualification. They're also created directly with employers, which means apprentices gain the skills that businesses want and need.

With those kind of benefits, it's not hard to see why politicians are praising apprenticeships. But the apprenticeships brand is under threat because of confusing uses of the word.

University or not?

Take the new 'Degree Apprenticeships' for example. They were announced last week during National Apprenticeship Week, and combine a traditional degree with an apprenticeship experience.

There's nothing wrong with the concept of gaining practical skills alongside academic study, but that's what 'sandwich year' university programmes already offer. Is it truly an apprenticeship, then, or is it simply re-packaged?

Universities previously enjoyed a reputation as being the superior route into a career. I'm pleased to say that's changing. However, saddling the word 'apprenticeship' with 'degree' could undermine efforts to make vocational routes as sought-after and well-regarded as university.

Neither option is better than the other; it all comes down to what's best for the individual. But they both deserve to be promoted as equals.

Changing perceptions

The other concern is that 'Degree Apprenticeships' might lead people to wonder if apprenticeships that don't lead to a degree are as valuable as those that do.

Those mixed messages put the whole system is at risk.

Just look at a recent survey of parents, conducted by Demos as part of the report, 'The Commission on Apprenticeships'.

They found that 92% of parents think apprenticeships are a good option, but they're better suited for kids who struggle in school than for the academically gifted.

And only a third believe an apprenticeship is the best option for their children.

We will never convince the other two-thirds about the merits of apprenticeships if they don't have a solid understanding of them. That starts by clearly defining what is and isn't an apprenticeship.